An Inititative of WarHistorian.org

Mark Grimsley
The Ohio State University

I have created The Military History Foundation in response to my perception that at present, a dearth of ideas and strategies exists concerning the advancement of military history as an academic field. The tone among many senior scholars in the field -- including those who hold, or have held, leadership positions -- is strikingly defeatist. Along with their rank-and-file counterparts, they complain about the marginalization of the field, blaming it on a blind prejudice against miltary history among academics in other fields.

This may be true. It is also irrelevant.

I happen to think the thesis of an unreasoning hostility toward the field is overblown. But even if it is not, this does not relieve us of the responsibility for developing and executing plans to strengthen the academic military history. Since others do not seem to be shouldering the burden, I've decided to embark on the work myself.

Some measures are easy to implement. We can, for example, create a bigger tent for military history. That is to say, we can make a concerted effort to reach out to historians who do not self-identify as military historians but whose scholarship nevertheless examines the military dimension of human affairs, invite them to our conferences, and make it known that we value their work.

We can become ambassadors for academic military history. Instead of ignoring or rejecting the conceptual frameworks of those in other fields, we can take an active interest in exploring those frameworks in a spirit of intellectual curiosity.

Other measures are much more challenging. For example, in December 2004 I visited Prof. John A. Lynn , the incoming vice president of the Society for Military History, at his home in Champaign, Illinois, while en route to spend the holidays with friends:

We talked briefly about what might be done intellectually to advance the field but focused mainly on what the SMH could do to create more academic positions in military history. We knew that few history departments would do this of their own accord. Indeed, the record at Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere is that when existing military historians retire they are not replaced. The programs simply disappear. Nor, in John's experience, did departments seem receptive to the idea of accepting external funding to endow chairs in the field. In effect, departments wouldn't add a military history faculty line even if it cost them nothing.

But this impression turned out to be primarily an extrapolation from John's dealings with his own department, which by any measure is a department unusually taken with the new cultural history and unusually cool to everything else. It also turned at the external funding was theoretical, not actual. I thought things would turn out differently if a department was confronted with, say, $2 million in cash.

John remained skeptical until I suggested that the SMH should employ a development officer of its own to go forth, locate, and cultivate Dick and Jane Q. Benefactor. You can't swing a cat in a country club without hitting some wealthy businessman with an interest in military history. Moreover, in a country dominated by what Robert Reich calls “rad conservatives,” where university departmental budgets are increasingly based on student enrollment, and where administrators have adapted themselves to both realities, I figured if you could get the bucks, you could get more than enough leverage to cram a military history position down the throat of the most granola-besotted department in the country. And if you couldn't do it among the top tier of universities, you could assuredly do it in the second-tier.

If nothing else, John agreed, that approach might populate the field with enough military historians for it to reach critical mass: a big problem right now is that there simply aren't enough academic military historians to be in real conversation with one another, to have the debates and steady historiographical growth characteristic of other fields. But on the whole John thought you'd get the most advantage from seeding military history positions in the top departments, and the idea of an SMH development officer captured his imagination. He wants to corral some of the Society's senior leadership at the next annual meeting and explore this idea further.

Will it work? I don't know. I do know that it's high time we began thinking strategically about how to establish the field. That, contrary to a myth much cherished among the white males of my profession, is how fields such as women's history and African American history got established. Political, diplomatic, social, and intellectual historians didn't just welcome them in. They scrambled; they elbowed their way to a place at the table. We must do the same.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Military History in March 2005, I again raised the idea of creating our own development operation with John Lynn and SMH trustee Jeffrey Grey. We refined the proposal a bit and took it to SMH president Carol Reardon for consideration. I think it would be fair to characterize Prof. Reardon's response as lukewarm. In any event, nearly two years have elapsed since I first broached the subject. Nothing has happened with that initiative, nor, to my knowledge has the SMH developed a different strategic plan.

Instead, a recent National Review Online article entitled "Sounding Taps" -- which argues that "tenured radicals" have all but driven military history from the academy -- includes a number of doleful quotations that substantially endorse the author's thesis:

Fred Kagan, a former West Point professor and currently a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute: "Pretty soon, it may become virtually impossible to find military-history professors who study war with the aim of understanding why one side won and the other side lost."

Robert Bruce, professor at Sam Houston State University: "Military historians have been hunted into extinction by politically active faculty members who think military history is a subject for right-wing, imperialistic warmongers."

Dennis Showalter, professor at Colorado College and former SMH president: "It's becoming harder and harder to find experts in operational military history . . . All this social [military] history is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark."

Williamson Murray, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University and senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses: "The prevailing view is that war is bad and we shouldn't study bad things."

Edward M. Coffman, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin: "We're dying out."

John A. Lynn, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, vice president of the SMH, and president of the International Commission on Military History: "When I retire in a few years, I'm sure they [the Illinois history department] won't replace me with another military historian. That will end a long tradition of teaching military history at Illinois."

The mindset reflected by these comments simply will not get us anywhere. Indeed, they may well have the effect of convincing potential benefactors not to invest in academic military history positions because the field will shortly be swept away.

And I've just plain had it. I am not going to listen to any more of this stuff. Instead I am going to do what I can to generate constructive plans and insist that the leadership of the Society for Military History either adopt them or develop constructive plans of its own.

That is the immediate task of The Military History Foundation. At the moment, it consists of a domain name purchased for $23.90 and a few web pages.

But it won't stay that way. See the MHF Mission Statement.

A word about the painting that dominates the foundation's logo. It depicts Union general Philip H. Sheridan rallying his troops after a disastrous morning rout at the battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. Inspired by Sheridan's leadership, the Union forces counterattacked -- and won the day.

Want to help? Contact MilitaryHistoryFoundation AT gmail DOT com.

About MHF